Five questions: Los Angeles Dodgers

When the Guggenheim Partners finalized the purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, a collective sigh could be heard throughout the baseball community. During the seven year reign of former owner Frank McCourt, things went from promising to outright terrible as scandals and misappropriation of funds brought this franchise to a grinding, yet temporary halt.

Sure, things were bad, but deep down, Dodgers fans knew that once McCourt was gone, things would improve. The team had the built-in Band-Aid of being located in the second largest market in the country. It had a modest payroll which included two franchise players on the right side of 25. And the new owners would be negotiating a new television deal so profitable that Major League Baseball is still trying to figure out what to make of it in terms of revenue sharing.

That brings us to today. McCourt is out, Magic Johnson and the Guggenheim power brokers are in and the team has become a viable contender while rejuvenating its fan base. On paper the team looks improved, with money redirected to international scouting, player development and payroll. But with all that money come more questions this team will need to address this season.

Will Hanley Ramirez remain as the team’s shortstop by midseason?

Before spring training, the team said that Ramirez will be its starting shortstop and thus the only person who will move Hanley… is Hanley himself.

But is it really that simple? Have the injuries of 2012 and lack of range taught us anything about one of the former best players in baseball? As far as I can tell, three very possible scenarios could force Ramirez off the position.

The first one is injury. Last season was a lost one, first stemming from chronic lower back pain, then from a season-ending shoulder injury caused by an errant defensive play. Over the offseason, the Dodgers were hoping Ramirez would get himself back into shortstop shape, but that was derailed due to a shoulder injury suffered during a winter league game in Puerto Rico. The injury proved to be minor but it did lead to him missing valuable time at the position over the offseason.

The next scenario is what to do if third baseman Luis Cruz pumpkins by mid-May? Last season, Cruz played surprisingly well in 78 games, posting a line of .297/.322/.431 with a .326 wOBA. Glancing over his numbers one can see many red flags; an incredibly low walk rate of three percent coupled with an abnormally high swing rate outside the zone at 41 percent. He also posted an unsustainable 23.6 percent line drive rate that helped keep the BABIP high.

In a nutshell, the Dodgers are fooling themselves into thinking Cruz can be anything more than a defensive sub at third, but with Nick Punto and Juan Uribe penciled in at backup, the options go from ugh to outright embarrassing and could force Ramirez to move back to third.

The third possible scenario would involve Ramirez going into a further offensive decline. Since 2010 his strikeout rate has shot up from 15 percent to 17.1 percent to 19.8 percent last season. Sure, strikeouts have increased across the board, but combined with his dwindling power numbers this would suggest a peak has passed him by.

Age and weight may have caused Ramirez to slow down a step, but his speed score and BABIP did come alive during his brief stint in Los Angeles. It’s doubtful that Ramirez will ever be the four WAR player he was several years ago, thereby making the $31.5 million owed to him through next season unjustifiable, but if he can stay healthy and not embarrass himself too much with the glove, the Dodgers would be more than happy to see a line around .275/.325/.445 over the next few seasons.

Should the Dodgers trade one of their starters before the season?

This past offseason, the Dodgers committed roughly $209 million in acquiring Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to fill out their already crowded rotation. With eight starters, one would think a trade is an absolute necessity in terms of roster space, but with the questions surrounding at least six of these starters. This surplus may only be an illusion.

Top of the rotation (2012 stats):
Clayton Kershaw: 227.2 IP, 9.05 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, ERA 2.53, 2.89 FIP, 5.5 fWAR
Zack Greinke: 212.1 IP, 8.48 K/9, 2.29 BB/9, 3.48 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 5.1 fWAR

No question marks here. This combination gives the Dodgers, arguably, the best top two starters in baseball. Kershaw is a legitimate ace and Greinke is the perfect No. 2 starter.

Middle of the rotation:
Chad Billingsley: 149.2 IP, 7.70 K/9, 2.71 BB/9, 3.55 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 2.7 fWAR
Josh Beckett: 170.1 IP, 6.97 K/9, 2.75 BB/9, 4.65 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 2.3 fWAR
Hyun-Jin Ryu (ZiPS projection): 180.3 IP, 8.44 K/9, 2.85 BB/9, 3.99 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 1.6 fWAR
Ted Lilly: 48.2 IP, 5.73 K/9, 3.51 BB/9, 3.14 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 0.5 fWAR

Here is where things get dicey. Billingsley is key in terms of providing this rotation a much needed bridge. He keeps the ball in the park, shows an above-average K/BB rate and can reach 190-plus innings. However, he seems to have a time bomb strapped to his pitching elbow. Late last season, Billingsley was diagnosed with a UCL tear. He elected to keep pitching in an effort to finally “blow it out.” Amazingly his elbow stayed attached and he decided to avoid the recommended Tommy John surgery, opting to receive platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections instead.

This injury has kept the Dodgers from making any serious moves. Going down the list, Beckett has shown the ability to be a viable third option, but his injury history combined with his steady decrease in velocity makes him a risk. Ryu is an exciting addition but, according to scouts, is a mixed bag. Those on the supporter side point to his ability to mix pitches well which helped him shine in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Olympics. On the other side, poor conditioning (he reported to camp an alleged 40 pounds above his listed weight) and a spotty injury history makes him a legitimate boom or bust candidate.

Lilly is recovering from shoulder surgery. He has been undergoing limited bullpen sessions in the hopes that he can avoid any setbacks. However, his age (37) and injury should make him a non-factor, at least, for the first half of the season.

Bottom of the rotation:
Aaron Harang: 179.2 IP, 6.56 K/9, 4.26 BB/9, 3.61 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 1.5 fWAR
Chris Capuano: 198.1 IP, 7.35 K/9, 2.45 BB/9, 3.72 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 2.1 fWAR

These are the two pitchers often discussed as being trade possibilities. Last season, both Harang and Capuano pitched better than expected. Harang, despite entering his age 35 season and diminished velocity, still relies on his above-average slider to be a capable back-end starter, but a rising walk rate and FIP suggesting that 2012 was reliant on luck should give inquiring teams some caution.

Where Harang was a former top-of-the-rotation starter, Capuano was a bit of a surprise in that he has posted two consecutive healthy seasons. Having undergone two Tommy John surgeries as well as a labrum surgery, Capuano still shows excellent command and the ability to effectively mix his pitches with some success (given that he is able to stay ahead of hitters, since his fastball doesn’t play too well in hitter counts).

Which brings us to our question: Assuming that Kershaw’s hip injury in 2012 is a thing of the past, let’s imagine that the No. 1 and No. 2 starters are locked in. Worst case scenario is that Billingsley blows out his elbow, Beckett starts the season the DL with some minor ailment, Ryu is ineffective and told to report to Albuquerque. That leaves us with Mike Magill or Stephen Fife battling it out for the fifth spot.

But that scenario is a bit extreme. A more likely case is that, again, Billingsley “blows it out” and Beckett moves into the third spot with Ryu holding it down in the fourth position. Even with Beckett not expected to log more than 160 innings, the team should still have the depth to capably fill out the bottom two slots.

Looking outside their division, the Cardinals, Cubs, Indians, Angels and Rangers should be in the market for a low-cost back end starter. Trading either Capuano or Harang won’t net you anything close to a steal, but if one of them can bring in a capable right-handed bat and defensive option off the bench. That should only help the team improve.

How much can we expect from Carl Crawford?

After an abysmal 2011 season, Crawford missed all but 31 games last season, recovering from a wrist operation and a sprained UCL ligament in his throwing elbow that would later require Tommy John surgery (he, too, tried the PRP injection but it didn’t take).

With $105 million owed through the 2017 season, the acquisition of Crawford represents one of the biggest gambles the Dodgers made last season. Crawford will begin the season at the age of 31, a time of slight decline for speed players, so it would be naive for us to expect him to return 2009 and 2010 levels.

Before we can attempt to predict Crawford’s value in 2013, we need to get a sense of his positive and negative attributes.

First, the bad: Crawford’s strikeout rate has been on a steady rise, going from 14.7 to 15.7 to 19.3 in 2011. Last season, this rate did fall in a handful of plate appearances but his walk rate further dipped, going from 7.6 to 6.9 to 4.3 to 2.9. As was stated earlier, strikeouts have been on the rise with the average hitter going from 16.8 in 2006 to 19.8 percent last season so this could merely point to wider overall trend in baseball.

Taking his strikeout total in a different context, Crawford’s swing strike percentage has hovered around nine percent, the same as during his height in Tampa Bay, but his plate discipline has derailed, going from swinging at pitches outside the zone at a clip of 31 percent in 2009 to 37.9 and 38.4 percent the last two seasons. The latter is eight percentage points higher than the major league average.

Now the good (sort of): Despite having only 125 plate appearances in 2012, Crawford did show an uptick in his isolated power and speed scores. But these power numbers don’t pass the pizza cutter test since ISO doesn’t become reliable until around 550 plate appearances. A stat that could be studied a bit more reliably in this sample is contact percentage. Last season his total was 83.5, his highest since 2009.

Crawford has admitted to not feeling 100 percent healthy regarding arm strength. Typically it takes position players from six to nine months to fully recover from TJ surgery. Since arm strength is a necessity for outfielders, it would probably be wise for the Dodgers to wait to fully activate him until mid May.

Hurt arm aside, it will still be a tall order for Crawford to consistently perform at a level that will justify a salary of $20 million per season. It’s within his reach to perform as a 2.5 to 3 WAR player this season and beyond. For a small market team where Crawford would be the focus, this would be devastating, but for a team fat with cash like LA, this will probably turn out just fine.

Did the Dodgers really need to spend $22.5 million at three years for a mid-tier relief pitcher?

Get used to it, America! The Dodgers have money, lots of it, and what good is it if it can’t be spent?

When Brandon League (mid-tier relief pitcher in question) was acquired at last season’s trade deadline, the Dodgers saw this as a way to improve their depth for a possible stretch run. The team already had lost a few key relievers to injury but when its closer, Kenley Jansen, was forced to go on the DL, a love affair between the Dodgers and League immediately blossomed.

Of course this love story had its roots when the team’s coaching staff announced that League was pitching better after a mechanical fix to his delivery. Some may consider it a product of small sample data, but League was much more effective once the change was made, posting his highest strikeout rate in three seasons at 8.9. He was also effective in the swinging strike category, which rocketed from eight percent with the Mariners to 14 percent. However, before we get all excited, League was still prone to trouble with left-handed hitters. And his control sputtered a bit even with the fix.

Jansen comes with all the qualities most teams like to see in its closer. He’s young and cheap, and has a cut fastball that dominates to the tune of striking out 40 percent of all batters faced in his career. Another attractive quality is that he has been able to keep his velocity in the mid 90s while improving his command: His walk percentages fell from 4.36 in 2011 to 3.05 last season.

The major question mark with Jansen is his health. In the past two seasons he has suffered from an irregular heartbeat that causes fatigue. Surgery over the offseason to cauterize the troublesome valve was declared a success, but the Dodgers may want to wait and see how he holds up for a full season.

If the team was looking for an insurance policy for Jansen, surely the Dodgers could have found other cheaper options, although the 2013 market for viable free-agent closers was a bit then. Sure they could have pursued a Ryan Madson or Joakim Soria for a fraction of the Brandon League price and figured either would be ready by early to late May, but what fun is that? The team figured it would buy another ninth-inning guy, name him the closer and maybe luck into using Jansen in other high leverage situations in the seventh or eighth inning. And, besides, if League sticks as the closer over the next few years, the Dodgers could stand to save a few bucks when Jansen is due for arbitration in 2014. See, spend 22.5 million bucks and you might just save four or five million over that span.

With a $200 million-plus payroll, the Dodgers should dominate the National League… right?

When the Guggenheim Partners took full control of the team last season, it was expected that money would be spent, but no one expected the team’s payroll to jump from last season’s Opening Day total of $105 million to the expected $213 million come April. That is certainly one of the largest one-year increases in sports history, but as we see with another major market team, in New York, a payroll that big doesn’t come with any guarantees.

Despite all the questions this team has, fans are certainly happy; but how happy will they be come mid-May if the team is feeling the effects of a slow start? Despite its expense, it is one of the biggest boom or bust teams recently assembled.

One could argue that this team is better suited as a playoff team, with its pitching concentrated more at the top as well as having a collection of talented bats with questionable long-term production and durability.

Last season the Dodgers finished with 86 wins, a full eight games behind the Giants but only two behind the Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot. With the Astros gone to American League and the NL Central expected to be improved, it may take only 86 wins to clinch a playoff spot. If all goes right, the Dodgers should easily find themselves as a 95- or 96-win team, which should be enough to dethrone the Giants in the West.

However, if this team has trouble with its pitching depth and if Ramirez and Crawford are injured or underperforming (in addition to Adrian Gonzalez going into a further power decline), things could get ugly real fast… for a very long time.

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Comments

  1. Vince Caramela said...

    Author error… discovered by Author himself!  Editors: I made a terrible mistake.  Above, near the bottom of question 2, I typed Mike Magill instead of Matt Magill.

    My apologies to all.

  2. CB The Dodger H8ter said...

    Nice read. I wonder what you think of Mattingly’s lame duck contract and if it may play a role in the success or failure of the Dodgers this year? I personally see the lack of an extension as a glaring vote of no confidence! If they play under 500 ball the first month of the season he may get the door. Will players respond to a guy on the way out? Why cheap out on the manager when you have all this money to toss around? Give the guy an extra year and if it doesn’t work out so what? It’s only a tiny bit of money (In baseball terms) and worth every penny if it means your players and bosses won’t second guess every move or throw you under the bus when you give a player an off day.
    Again great article. Thanks! (PS have you done a Giants one?P)

  3. Vince Caramela said...

    Thank you, CB.  The issue with Mattingly is complicated.  Full disclosure, I grew up a Yankees fan in the 80’s so I pretty much worship the man. However, I am not the biggest fan of his managerial career, although it has been brief.

    First, new ownership will always throw a cloud over the manager and GM.  The new owners obviously weren’t shy with remaking the team but in terms of management, Mattingly was inherited from the previous regime so he’ll need to re-sell himself.

    In terms of flaws, he can be limited in his batting order and a bit narrow in his belief on the “perfect lead off hitter.”  I know he is pushing the idea of having Carl Crawford bat lead off and that could be a disaster… Assuming he is ready in May.  Even Crawford isn’t fully on board with the idea.

    Looking at his replacement if the Dodgers pull a Lakers dive bomb this spring, I can’t think of a solid replacement but something tells me they would jump at the chance to pull Torre back out retirement/MLB door greeting just for the name glamour.

    Being a Giants fan, I’m sure Steve Treder will be writing those five questions, so you’ll be in for a treat.  Thanks.

  4. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy said...

    As we see with the team in New York, actually it does come with guarantees. They make the playoffs every year and with another wild card spot they should continue to do so, once you’re in you have a shot at a title. Let us not go back and see where the past 10+ World Series champs ranked in payroll because then we won’t be able to say “You can’t buy a championship man”. Even if they’re a bust they surely won’t be any worse than the Dodgers have been for the past 20 years. After the collapse mid-season last year it still should have come down to the final game of the season for that last wild card spot, i thought that was hilarious, the first part of the season was incredibly lucky, ironically they took a dive when the new players arrived. If it is a disaster at least we can look forward to Donnie and Uncle Ned finally getting canned. Mattingly is just a run of the mill manager, we love to criticize him but in honesty most of them are probably like him so what can ya do? Just keep him as a figurehead if people like um, just like Joe Torre no?

    ^ This isn’t basketball though, players can’t whine their way to get traded, you can’t pick up a Pau Gasol for pretty much nothing and you’re a contender for the next 5+ years, be the highest team in payroll and win all the championships.

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